Over 200 Bristol County Convictions Dropped Due to Disgraced Chemist
BOSTON — District attorneys from across the state on Thursday announced they would dismiss convictions involving evidence tainted by former state drug lab chemist Sonja Farak, a number the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts tallied at more than 6,000.
Of that number, 203 are are from Bristol County, according to Bristol County District Attorney's Office spokesperson Megan Borges.
Hampden District Attorney Anthony Gulluni said he would drop 3,940 district and juvenile court convictions involving samples where Farak, who pleaded guilty in 2014 to tampering with evidence at the Department of Public Health laboratory in Amherst, signed the certificate of analysis. Northwestern District Attorney David Sullivan's office says it filed documents with the Supreme Judicial Court to drop 1,497 criminal cases involving certificates signed by Farak.
"The egregious misconduct committed by one rogue chemist at the Amherst Lab shook the very foundation of our criminal justice system, the integrity of which must be preserved at all costs," Sullivan said in a statement. "Although we have no reason to believe that anyone was wrongfully convicted in the cases being dismissed, it would not be in the best interests of justice to attempt to reprosecute them."
The filings and announcements came in response to a Committee for Public Counsel Services and the American Civil Liberties Union petition, which asked the state's highest court to craft a remedy for Farak's misconduct.
The organizations held a press conference at the ACLU's downtown Boston office, where they called for all convictions to be dismissed in the Farak cases.
"Dismissal vindicates the rights of our clients' to due process and fair prosecution, and restores the integrity to the justice system by sending a clear message to prosecutors that no conviction will be allowed to stand in the face of such fraud," said Randy Gioia, deputy chief counsel of the CPCS public defender division.
Speakers also blasted state prosecutors involved in the cases. Attorney General Maura Healey's office said some of the suggestions made at the press conference were "false and irresponsible."
Essex District Attorney Jonathan Blodgett's office said it intends to dismiss all juvenile and district court cases where Farak was the chemist, and said a final list of cases would be ready next week. Middlesex District Attorney Marian Ryan agreed to dismiss 238 district court cases and 7 in Superior Court, and Suffolk District Attorney Dan Conley indicated he would drop all 134 of his office's "Farak Cases."
According to the ACLU, 241 cases will be dismissed in Worcester County.
After a January ruling by the Supreme Judicial Court, prosecutors identified 21,839 convictions for dismissal in what the ACLU's Carol Rose called a "similarly disturbing but unrelated" involving samples tainted by another former state chemist, Annie Dookhan.
This time, "the scope of misconduct is far worse," Rose said.
"Upon finding out about Ms. Farak's malfeasance, prosecutors from the Massachusetts Attorney General's Office actually misled the courts and the people of Massachusetts about the scope of the scandal," Rose said. "Worse, when the evidence of tampering came to light, Massachusetts' elected district attorneys again failed to notify thousands of people who'd been wrongfully convicted by the tainted evidence, until we sued."
Matthew Segal, legal director for the ACLU of Massachusetts, described what he referred to as "egregious" conduct from prosecutors.
"The attorney general's office in any state should be a law firm for all the people, but for wrongfully convicted people, the Massachusetts Attorney General's Office has not been their law firm," Segal said. "It has been their persecutor. It hid exculpatory evidence from them, it deceived courts and defense attorneys in their cases and despite that, it has not agreed to dismiss a single case that it handled, or even to make lists of which people it harmed. That is shameful."
Charges against the defendants in the tainted cases were brought by district attorneys, though the case against Farak herself was prosecuted by the Attorney General's Office, under former Attorney General Martha Coakley. The Superior Court later found that two former assistant attorneys general, Anne Kaczmarek and Kris Foster, committed prejudicial prosecutorial misconduct in the Farak investigation.
"It's unfortunate that the ACLU chose to stage a press conference without reading the AG’s brief filed in this case, which calls for speedy relief for these defendants," Jillian Fennimore, Healey's communications director, said in a statement. "Sonja Farak's crimes were egregious and, as our filings today make clear, this office has been working hard to resolve these cases as quickly as possible. Staff in the AG's Office have been working hard for months to review databases, identify the Farak defendants, and secure their speedy relief. For the ACLU to suggest otherwise is false and irresponsible."
Nicole Westcott, who was convicted in a case where Farak was the state drug lab chemist, said at the press conference that as part of her path to sobriety she has had to identify the people she wronged and make amends. Westcott said she wants to see prosecutors do the same.
"I want them to be held accountable like I was held accountable," she said.
--By Katie Lannan, State House News Service